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October 2006
Animal Rights and Wrongs

The Satya Interview with Lee Hall


In Capers in the Churchyard: Animal Rights Advocacy in the Age of Terror (Nectar Bat Press, 2006), author Lee Hall critically examines strategies and tactics used in the animal rights movement. Since 2002, Hall has served as the legal director for Friends of Animals, and writer of their column, “Movement Watch.” Friends of Animals, established in 1957, works to cultivate a respectful view of nonhuman animals and free them from cruelty and institutionalized exploitation.

Hall’s analysis of the movement notices two major trends dominating animal activism—militancy and welfare advocacy—neither of which Hall feels leads to animal rights.

The title of the book refers to a campaign in the UK, where activists targeted a family farm supplying guinea pigs to the vivisection giant Huntingdon Life Sciences. They stole graveyard remains of the family’s relative to blackmail them into terminating their relationship with HLS. Hall analyzes this case, as well as others involving fear and intimidation, and feels that “those who have right on their side should keep it there.”

Both militancy and welfare stem from a sense of urgency, but Hall shows these approaches to be divisive and detrimental to our cause.

“Welfare societies not only work to forge what they call win-win situations with government and industry; they also work to convince animal-rights activists to join in the effort. To the extent that they succeed (a phenomenal extent so far), they render the movement too timid—or as they might prefer to say, pragmatic—to ask for what it wants.” Hall asserts, “the animal-welfare concept, which seeks to ameliorate the worst conditions of use rather than question a culture of dominion, plays an integrated maintenance function in the established social order.”

At a time when animal groups are actively working on farm animal welfare standards and six members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty USA are facing prison sentences, Sangamithra Iyer had a chance to ask Lee Hall about animal advocacy today.

Your book Capers in the Churchyard examines two major trends you see in the animal rights movement: militant action and intimidation on one end, and animal welfare reform on the other. Why do you find this problematic?
From an industry manager’s perspective, you’ll see two major ways in which animal users keep activists under control. The traditional way entails being prepared to negotiate a few animal welfare concessions with activists. The animals, of course, aren’t polled.

The other management method involves portraying activists as dangerous.

Let’s look at the first. Adjustments in commercial husbandry practices may be touted as victories, but over the years they’ve done very little, except to give the impression industries have “taken a bite out of their worst cruelties.” Such assurances don’t empower us or other animals, so why do they occupy so many advocates? It’s the seductive but largely illusory view that things can’t change overnight, so we should relieve suffering now. The thing is, now just keeps going on and on, while industries expand to meet new profit opportunities. In the age of cloning and genetic modification, activists are so accustomed to rubber-stamping that the American Anti-Vivisection Society actually campaigned to get cloning regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act. Imagine a group claiming to be anti-vivisection asking for cloning to have the blessing of codification in a federal law.

Militancy is relatively immediate, often concerned with the worst scenarios, trying a few rescues and getting as much publicity for them as they can, sometimes involving mainstream organizations to prosecute a campaign against a certain business and rarely stepping back to ask where the roots of the troubles lie. Campaigns seeming edgy on the surface may lead back to arguing with industry about such things as the disrepair of the cages. Rescuing animals from institutional settings can help at an individual level, but it rarely empowers the animals. And the laws protecting industries may become stricter in response.

Spokespeople in militant and traditional welfare circles may urge us to “just do something!” Doing all sorts of things, which often means contradictory things, is not the same as advocacy that envisions and commits to root-level change.

What are your thoughts about the increasing association of animal rights groups with animal welfare, for example, endorsing Whole Foods and helping create its Animal Compassionate standards or advocating switching to cage-free eggs?
This is the influence not of animal rights, but of Peter Singer, the Humane Society of the U.S., and others who promoted that alliance. Notably, Donald Watson, who founded the Vegan Society in 1944, called the family farm “death row.” No farming respects the animals on whom it’s imposed. Vegan advocacy has nothing whatsoever to do with making animal products look attractive.

So forget egg reform. Let’s start commending veganism—without hedging. Animal rights activism is not exemplified by those who present a smorgasbord of choices, who sometimes advocate veganism and sometimes promote humane animal farming.

Groups such as the HSUS, to be fair and accurate, do not claim to be committed to the animal rights mission. Friends of Animals had a very different take on the debut of Whole Foods Market’s Animal Compassion Foundation: We picketed. As we see it, advocacy involving systematic pain management makes activists into industry adjuncts.

Assuring the public that activism can and will reduce suffering says a lot about human tendency to control. It’s applicable to domestic or captive animals—a husbandry matter. Animal rights isn’t reducing suffering, but giving up our dominion over others.

In efforts for farm animal welfare and “free-range” farming, one thing you point out that is notably absent is the impact on free-living animals. Can you talk about this?
Not only do six billion humans take up a lot of space; we’re also accompanied by our vast entourage of domesticated animals. Meanwhile, as precious time passes, the other animals of the world—those who might have a chance to keep their territory and their freedom—are pushed to the margins of the land.

So from both an animal rights and an environmental perspective, space for animal agribusiness doesn’t need to be expanded; it needs to be phased out.

We’re seeing the biggest set of extinctions and the most ominous climate indicators in modern history. Negotiating with industries is fiddling as Rome burns. We should be very busy learning a different way to think about other animals and the earth.

I like how you say veganism is “direct action.” Can you expand upon that?
To actually achieve the animal rights ideal, humans would withdraw from the profoundly unjust custom of dominating others. A word for that change is veganism.

The cages won’t disappear, nor will the killing of free-living animals cease, because we “just do” anything. Transforming society is an ambitious task, but it’s possible by taking one well-directed step at a time, focusing our efforts on creating fundamental change.

As individuals, we can model respect and fairness immediately, simply by committing to vegan living. What we do individually sooner or later becomes collective action.

The vegan sunflower label, like the word itself, has crossed the oceans, and we can now find like-minded people most anywhere we go. But lately we find numerous, concerted efforts to trivialize committed veganism, even by people who call themselves vegans! Yet taking veganism seriously should be the central priority for animal rights advocates.

Six members of SHAC were sentenced last month. You describe the economic sabotage they carried out in getting individuals and businesses to discontinue their association with HLS. Can you explain why you think this was not a successful campaign?
Prison disables people. A prison sentence means a body is handed over to an ever-expanding system of cages.

It’s important to point out that the authorities see SHAC as an international campaign, and they’re sharing enforcement expertise internationally. The campaign to shut Huntingdon Life Sciences began in Britain, where support for vivisection has risen to about 70 percent, if you believe this year’s widely published YouGov poll [for The Daily Telegraph]. Previous surveys had reported figures around 50 percent. This year, several people have entered guilty pleas in connection with the removal of human remains from a churchyard for leverage against a family business that supplied guinea pigs to companies including Huntingdon. And this year, vivisection in Britain reached its highest level in 14 years.

We’re seeing a pattern, a grand lawmaking experiment that singles out animal-use industries for special protection, corresponding to extra penalties for activists. We’re seeing the authorities threaten people with grotesque sentences, pressing individuals to turn against each other. We’re seeing the heavy use of conspiracy charges just to nab somebody—oddly mirroring the way some militant campaigns are expanding outward, channeling anger to someone’s child or the construction worker rather than those authorizing the experiments. It all has become an escalating battle between the activists and one company, and, of course, law enforcement. I don’t think the animal rights viewpoint can be forced on anyone, when the animal rights worldview is about transcending force.

Your book offers an in-depth criticism of many things ailing the animal rights movement and the shortcomings of the noted victories. Yet there seemed to be a shortage of positive examples of animal advocacy. Can you give some examples of strategies/campaigns that you think are doing it right?
The Captive Animals’ Protection Society, based in England but working globally, organizes local opposition to the building of sites meant to display living individuals. Without silly gimmicks, they work to prevent captivity in the first place. They link their critiques of capture and commerce with the positive value of a free life in a healthy aquatic community. They sharply debunk aquatic zoos’ advertising—for example, by noting that a cafeteria at the aquarium sells the cod and other animals it claims to protect. This activism helps people transcend a cage-minded culture, and I think making the connection to the lunch menu is a good idea.

Pennsylvania-based Responsible Policies for Animals shows how university “animal science” serves private interests of the flesh, milk and egg industries, as well as commerce in pharmaceuticals, feed crops, petroleum and fast food. Nice work. Vegan organic growing is revolutionizing the way people think about food. And every vegetarian society expressly defining vegetarianism as a totally plant-based diet is doing it right.

You offer criticism of militancy and welfare regarding vivisection and farm animals. Is Friends of Animals currently working on campaigns focused on lab and farm animals?
We do educational projects addressing vivisection, cloning, and genetic modification. We’ve collaborated with Primates for Primates in Australia, bringing animal rights advocacy directly into initiatives designed to prevent proposed cloning research entirely. Note, though, that the spread of veganism is important if we’re going to get a critical mass to renounce vivisection. In fact, without animal agribusiness, we wouldn’t have a lot of today’s scientific absurdities. The first cloned cat was introduced at the Texas Agriculture Experiment Station.

FoA generally focuses mostly on wild animals rather than on those in captivity, why is that?
We know that animal rights won’t be found on the farm. Commodified animals will always be rightless. That’s what it means to be property.

So an animal rights movement isn’t advanced by combining and confusing vegan education with campaigns that negotiate with animal agribusiness. We could all become experts on animal farming, but veganism is about opting out of that system.

You might not be able to see or touch the absence of exploitation, but it’s real. By being vegan, you’ll spare more animals from a commodified life than most any sanctuary in the world. The key word is “spare” because you aren’t rescuing animals; you’re working at the root, sparing them from ever needing to depend on rescuers in the first place, and respecting the habitat of those who live empowered lives.

Our central focus is on free-living animals, yes, because as long as they live, the animal rights movement has hope. The bulk of today’s animal advocacy is primarily concerned about how to treat the domesticated animals. But what would abolishing property status do if there were no free animals—if no habitat remained where animals could actually benefit from that achievement? Animal rights is only a viable idea as long as there is an animal world at liberty to avoid such interactions.

What has the response been from other animal activists and groups regarding your book? Are they open to criticism, when Friends of Animals tends not to work with them on campaigns?
Mainstream groups, even some smaller groups, have promoted decidedly non-vegan campaigns, and you might say they’re opting not to work with us. It’s all a matter of perspective! Actually I think we’ve stayed right at the core of animal rights thinking; and if humanity is to survive and progress, it won’t be due to roomier egg production or temporary boycotts of the flesh of one kind of animal to save another.

The day that animals are taken seriously, the day they are credited with a claim to their territory and freedom, that’ll be the day corporate polluters and pillagers meet their true challenge.

I think it’s beginning to dawn on a growing number of activists that professionalized welfare advocacy, for all its talk about victories and advances and political clout, has comfortably settled into the role of an industry gatekeeper, and the attempts to form husbandry-rights hybrids are vulnerable to that same hydraulic pull. I don’t expect the critique in my book to be gratefully received by the leaders of such groups; their ways are now quite entrenched. But we’ve had positive and really energizing input from activists who’ve read the book. And the response from environmentalists and people in other social movements is really encouraging us.

A key point in Capers in the Churchyard is striving for advocacy that changes and challenges the existing power structure. How do we do that?
Pause, think, envision. The dominant method of professionalized advocacy conditions activists to seek one-click solutions, but really challenging the status quo will be quite a different matter.

The main work of the book is an exploration of reasons why activists do things that deter or delay the most important goal of the movement. I think it does this. But detailed guidelines could contradict a key intention of the book: to question the paradigm of creating experts (you’ve heard it: “No one has done more for the animals than So-and-So” or “No group has had more legislative victories than Such-and-Such”). More valuable is the ability of people to think for ourselves.

That said, supporting what veganism stands for is, in my view, essential. It’s a perfect example of people power.

As for dissolving hierarchical thinking, first, it’s important to note that animal advocates can be as invested in hierarchy as the rest of society. It is imperative that we actively work for a movement that seeks to end hierarchies based on errors such as sexism, racism and xenophobia, and have the guts to interrogate the assumptions that enable humans to exert dominion over others. If we put our energy where our vision is, reasonable people can consider the message and act accordingly. Each vegan represents a revolutionary change, and it’s a matter of plain sanity to start a revolution that arrives at respect for other beings and our global commons.

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